Debate Club

Washington Football Fans Can Love the Team Without the Name


Residents of the National Capital Region get much more excited about football than about the politicians who dominate Washington. Our home team gets love even when it is losing. I am among the fans who cheer for them, win or lose. 

However, I grew up in Washington when the team did not give us much to cheer about. Playing in the old Griffith Stadium, the team often rested in last place. Its owner, George Preston Marshall, an avowed racist, fit into the old D.C., which had no home rule thanks to Southern Democrats, who also ensured that public schools and downtown accommodations were racially segregated.

Today’s team is like the 20th-century home team in name only. Like many sports teams, our football team unites our region, among the most diverse in the nation. It engenders loyalty – from the super affluent to those who can’t afford a ticket or much else.

Why would our thoroughly modern football team – or the NFL – hang on to a name defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "dated. offensive. American Indian"?  Is it even a sensible business decision to cling to a name that can no longer be trademarked? On four separate occasions since 1996, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has rejected new trademark applications on the grounds that the word "redskin," which recalls a particularly gruesome form of ethnic cleansing, is "disparaging." Moreover, if the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board follows its own precedent, it will cancel the current trademark, as it did in 1999 in a case that was overturned on a procedural technicality. A new case, heard in March, will be decided soon.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Who would want to be compelled to change the name of a world-class team because it is found to be derogatory under federal law? Why would our team owner insist on a name that insults an ethnic group when he himself was so sensitive that he sued (unsuccessfully) a local newspaper he claimed disparaged his ethnic background in a caricature accompanying an article critical of his management style? The First Amendment protects individuals even when they use derogatory names, but a corporate entity does not enjoy nationwide trademark protection when it attempts to profit from a derogatory name or logo.

Most fans, like me, have called our home team by a name only widely recognized in recent years as a racial slur. Most of us, including the current owner, adopted the name innocent of its background. Changing the name would require investment in new team paraphernalia and branding, but in the end, a profit, not a loss, would be the likely result.

We, who are fans, have no reason to be invested in the name. We can love the team – as we do – without loving the name. We may have to purchase new team hats, shirts, banners and all the rest. What a sacrifice. Count me with the 75 percent of D.C. region residents who say that a change in the name would not diminish their support for the team. 

Eleanor Holmes Norton

About Eleanor Holmes Norton District of Columbia Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives


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